Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Problem of "Common Pool Resources"

Economists are fond of pointing out the attractive welfare outcomes of the perfectly competitive model. Of course, economists also concern themselves with analyzing various forms of market failure.  One easy example of a market failure is the monopoly outcome.   However, it is quite possible to find market failure in industries that look like they should be competitive but somehow end up with less than stellar welfare outcomes.

One such outcome is known as the Common Pool Resource problem.  It arises in situations where there is no market mechanism to exclude agents from accessing and utilizing a valuable resource.  To illustrate, consider a 1956 movie called Giant, set around the great oil boom in the East Texas oil fields.  (Giant was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, 2 Best Actor in a Leading Role nominations (James Dean and Rock Hudson), Best Director, etc.  It won just one, the Best Director.)  The James Dean character discovers oil on a small plot of land he owned in an area that was used exclusively as cattle range. He built a derrick on his land and started making a great deal of money extracting and selling oil.

However, he only owned a small piece of land overtop a large LARGE reservoir of oil.  He went about acquiring more land, but lots of other people owned plots of land overtop other areas of this giant reservoir of oil.  And, they all started constructing their own derricks.  Think of the incentive.  The oil in the reservoir is finite; every gallon of oil your rival pulls out is one less gallon for you to extract.  So, not only do you want your derrick to run 24 by 7, you want to put as many derricks on your physical plot of land as you can;  the more pipes you can stick down into that oil reservoir, the more gallons of the fixed pool of oil will end up belonging to you.  In the case of the East Texas oil fields, it soon looked like this:

      (C) B. Anthony Steward/The National Geographic/Christie's Images

The problem arises because too many derricks are pumping out the oil too fast.  Geologists can show you the models that describe an optimal extraction rate, one that would use the natural pressure from surrounding aquifers to push the oil up in the cheapest manner.  By sticking thousands of straws down in the reservoir and sucking as hard as you can on your straw, the aquifers rushed in too rapidly, leaving vast quantities of oil stuck in hidden pools and fissures that were inaccessible.  This outcome was very inefficient.  This is the nature of Common Pool Resource problems and the resulting market failure.

The January 30, 2013 issue of the New York Times had an Op-Ed by Callum Roberts titled “Keep the Fishing Ban in New England.”  The article discusses a phenomenon similar to the oilfield disaster described above but occurring in the great fishing beds off the coast of New England.  Again, the common pool problem arose.  The sea was full of fish but if any one fisherman showed restraint in extracting fish, the other fishers would simply get a larger share of the finite pool of fish below the surface.  The result was over-fishing, just as the oilfield saw over-extraction of the oil. Every fishing firm had an incentive to fish with as many boats and as many nets as possible to get a larger share of the fish swimming below the surface.  The result was disastrous, as the stocks got dangerously low.

It is important to note that this danger is not just a "new phenomenon" but something that societies have grappled with for years.  On January 2, 2015, the New York Times published an Op-Ed column by W. Jeffrey Bolster about the November 2014 shut down of all Cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine. (The article is dated January 1, 2015 on the website but it actually appeared in the hardcopy newsprint delivered to my driveway on January 2, 2015.)  The article is titled "Where have all the Cod Gone?" and offers quite a good history of the various times that overfishing has required governmental intervention to keep the breeding pool above the tipping point.  More recently, an article by Ben Dipietro in the Feb 04, 2016 Wall Street Journal titled "U.S. Proposes New Rules To Fight Illegal Fishing, Fraud" points to strengthening of federal laws to further protect species such as cod, red snapper, swordfish, and four species of tuna.  And, the Economist is helping sponsor the upcoming July 2016 South-East Asia and Pacific Regional Fisheries Summit to discuss policy options to overfishing.

Indeed, policy makers have shown a willingness to intervene in market transactions when they feel that some group will be impacted by the transaction but that very same group does not have power to be heard in the negotiations.  For example, consider a housing developer offering a farmer on the edge of the community enough money that the farmer agrees to sell her cornfield to the developer.  This appears to be a very efficient and desirable transaction; both the buyer and the seller voluntarily agree to a transaction that brings both of them some gain. However, if it turns out that putting houses on the former cornfield would destroy the natural habitat of a small wetlands creature, policy makers might consider intervention to stop this form of urban sprawl.

Economists have noted the increasing pressure to have a third-party agency join in transactions in order to have “…someone who will speak for the XXX…”  where you can substitute the XXX with “spotted owl” or “grizzly bears” or whatever animal that is being disadvantaged as a result of a willing and voluntary transaction between two entities.  My favorite quote in the Times story on the New England fishing issue is:

Federal law delegated to the New England Fishery Management Council authority to manage the fishery from 3 miles to 200 miles off the coast, but the council didn’t see its job as speaking up for fish.

The author of the Op Ed very much wants the fish to be fairly represented as the Federal Government mulls opening up fishing areas that have closed for decades.  It is a debate we will continue to see more frequently, in various venues, moving forward.